Concert photography: Better known as the Black Hole

Huey Lewis and the News 1982 in Greenville, NC

At least I found ONE photo for the paper

I remember being in a darkroom looking through my photo shoot of a concert and struggling to find one image that I could give to the editors.

When I was photographing bands in the 1980s I was just starting in this career. Every time I pushed that button it was costing me about 50¢ to 75¢ a photo. The cost depended on if I was shooting black and white, color negative or color transparency film.  It was quite common for me to come away from a concert with only a handful of images that were keepers.

The learning curve for me was quite steep as compared to today. You had to wait to see your results.

Joe Jackson, 1983 at Great Adventure in Howell, NJ.

With film the time from me taking the photo to seeing if it was usable was a few hours at best and usually with color transparency a couple of weeks.

I should have been writing down all my camera settings and then when looking at the photos know what I did, but I didn’t. I just knew the shutter speed was too slow and my images were not sharp.

Brice Street at the Attic in Greenville, NC 1983

The camera’s metering systems were not as sophisticated as today. Getting a good reading on the face of the singer using spot meter in your camera that we have today, was not on those Nikon FM or FM2 cameras I had back then.

I was shooting tungsten color transparency film since most stages were being lighted by tungsten temperature lights. I was shooting ISO 160 being pushed to ISO 320. I had a Nikon 80-200mm ƒ/4 lens and therefore getting very little usable images back then.

I was making a lot of mistakes in those first five years. Sometimes I was hunting through contact sheets for just one image that could run in the school paper. I remember a time or two handing in photos that were just slightly out of focus or had more motion blur than I should have had.

Charlie Daniels Band at East Carolina University 1984

The Attic in Greenville, NC had a good number of rock bands come through and since it was such a small venue the lights were closer and the light was decent. However, when the school had concerts like the Charlie Daniels Band, the light wasn’t much better.

I was getting very few usable images in those days. You see shooting in the bright sun was much easier than going into some of the night clubs where light was scarce.

Late Night Reading at Swayze’s in Marietta August 2012 [Using off camera strobes]

Even with today’s cameras you are not going to walk into the venue and walk out with all your photos in focus, sharp and well lighted because of the new cameras. I am drawing upon all those years of mistakes today. I am showing up with lights in my car that I can go and get to setup as needed.

When I went to Swayze’s in Marietta, GA to photograph a boy band I walked into worse lighting than I had back in the 1980s. I went to the car after trying to shoot with the available light to get some strobes. I knew that was the only way to really get some usable images like the one above of the bass player from the band Late Night Reading.

Five lights in the ceiling on the band. Four in front and one behind the drummer. Also, their were footlights in cases that the guitar and bass player jumped on that was lighting them more than those lights in the ceiling. [Nikon D4, 28-300mm @ 125mm, ISO 5000, ƒ/5.6, 1/60]

Here is the overall shot of the stage showing their lighting. I was few if any photos in focus, because they were a punk band. They didn’t stay still like some bands. Their heads were banging as fast as the music.  My experience told me to shoot the available light and get all I could without lights before setting up lights. Too many photographers jump too quickly to strobes and trying to shoot at low ISO all the time.

[Nikon D4, 14-24mm @ 14mm, ISO 5000, ƒ/5.6, 1/60, with off camera strobes firing] You can see the footlights here.

What I learned through the years

Had I not been shooting bands on stages for years, I would not know what stage lighting should look like. I realized some concerts the bands paid attention to the lighting. Huey Lewis and the News the lighting was excellent. For a Rita Coolidge concert the lighting was great. For the Charlie Daniels band not so great. With Charlie Daniels wearing hat and the light from above, he never had good light on his face. 

Rita Coolidge 1983

Later when I didn’t use a flash to photograph Marc Brousard, I was equally screwed until he looked up into the light as here below.

Knowing what good light looks like makes it so much easier to then know how to create that light later with strobes or even hot lights. One thing I knew from shooting stage lighting is I wanted good light on the performers face and often this meant a light that wasn’t being blocked by hats.

  1. I have learned to always shoot the available light first before adding lights.
  2. Learned that the light changes as the artist moves around the stage. So sometimes the light is great and sometimes it sucks–depends on your timing and luck.
  3. I try to shoot faster shutter speeds for sharp photos. I may experiment with slower shutter speeds to show motion, but when I do I know that is what I am looking for in the photo.
  4. I shoot more variety of shots today–wide, medium and tight shots.
  5. I shoot the reaction to the stage as well as the stage.
  6. I shoot each type of shot until I have some variety with each and not just a photo here and one there.
While shooting what is on stage from different angles can give your clients some variety, it is what happens off the stage that is just as compelling when put into a package.
You don’t get credit for lighting professional productions as a photographer. However, not getting good skin tones and technically in focus, sharp and well exposed photos will keep you from making a living in this profession.
Now by shooting the crowd you really are capturing with a visual how they sound. If they are good then the crowd is into it as we see here above with their hands in the air. getting people up and dancing is another way to show how the music moved people. The point is the action isn’t always on the stage.  
I can tell you from my earlier years I didn’t know to shoot the reaction of the crowd to the music.  That is really one of the best signs of the seasoned pro–a broad coverage.
When the light is great like here when I photographed the comedian Tim Hawkins I am thrilled. My job is so much easier. I don’t have to light the stage. If you have great shots at venues like this, you don’t get credit for the lighting. 
Comedian Tim Hawkins. [Nikon D4, 70-200mm @ 135mm, ISO 5600, ƒ/5.6, 1/500]

When you start out you will be terrified when you show up at events where there is little or no light. You will make mistakes and lots of them. Most likely the people hiring you don’t know how difficult the job is they hired you to shoot.

You will be sick as you edit your work hoping you have enough images to even show the client and pray they are enough they are satisfied.

As you get more experience your anxiety will diminish. You will come to jobs with more gear for those difficult moments you anticipate.  You now know how bad it could get.

Just know all professions have lifecycle that you grow into become a veteran.

Lifecycle for the professional photographer
  1. First five years–Lots of mistakes and primarily the way we learn
  2. Second five years–Still making mistakes, but now learning to round out our coverage
  3. Third five years–Have a style that is established that is professional.
  4. Forth five years–Nailing most assignments and not just delivering what is expected, but now experimenting to stretch beyond
  5. Fifth five years–Going after new markets and often trying new things to add to our portfolio of skills. 
What you will notice is about every five years you will have mastered a new skill you started and added this to your portfolio of skills. In order to remain competitive you add a new skill about every five years and take about five years to really perfect it.
Some skills that you might add over time
  • Lighting with hot shoe flash
  • Using studio strobes in a studio setting
  • Portrait lighting
  • Product lighting
  • Location lighting
  • Video